NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana appeals court recently set aside a life sentence for an African-American man convicted of stealing $15 from a parked vehicle; and at least one attorney in the state agrees the punishment didn't fit the crime.
According to The Advocate, Walter Johnson, 38, a felon with three prior convictions, was sentenced last year under Louisiana’s habitual-offender statute that mandates a life sentence for four-time felony offenders. The vehicle Johnson is accused of stealing from was a law enforcement vehicle used as a bait car to catch burglars.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ordered a New Orleans judge to draft a reduced sentence in December.
While the decision will reduce the time Johnson will spend in prison, the three-judge panel upheld Johnson’s conviction. The court denied Johnson’s claim that he was entrapped by the police.
Peter Russell, partner with the firm McBride and Russell and a former police officer, told the Louisiana Record that the sentence itself was unjust, but the judge had little recourse under Louisiana law.
“Louisiana’s judges have no authority to go around the mandatory sentences laws,” Russell said. “It’s not like a common-law state where judges have some authority and leeway. In Louisiana, a judge cannot interfere unless it violates the Louisiana’s constitution or is a violation of the United States Constitution.”
Russell said Louisiana appellant courts probably are stepping outside the boundary of their authority, but think they have no choice but to challenge some punishments handed out by state district attorneys, since the law gives all discretion to those offices.
“Are they outside of what the law allows under the habitual-offender law? Yes, they are,” Russell said. “The appeals courts and many of the judges are tired of the prosecutors failing to use discretion in what they charge and ask for.”
According to statistics released by the state and reported in The Advocate, the office of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who prosecuted Johnson, leads the state among district attorneys in seeking long prison sentences under the statute.
Russell said Cannizzaro and other district attorneys have the option to seek felonies instead of misdemeanors for minor offenses — and in many cases, have gone too far.
“Our DAs are swinging bats and knocking everybody out and slapping themselves thinking its OK to give these long prison terms for minor offenses,” Russell said. “Cannizzaro had the option to go either way and charge a minor crime or charge a felony and seek a life sentence. Take the same set of circumstances in another state like Missouri all he gets is a $10 fine. It’s ridiculous.”
The use of the repeat-offender law statewide has given critics like Russell to question if the law targets the poor and minority groups.
“We are swinging these bats around and its minorities and the poor who are the line for these long sentences,” he said. “The majority of poor people are people of color in this state. That's why we have groups like Black Lives Matter because they are disproportionally targeted by these laws. They are the ones whose sons and daughters are being put away for long times for minor crimes.”
Russell said he does not see much of a change coming in Louisiana law unless the Supreme Court steps in.